Blogged: shaking up Shakespeare

I have a mixed time with some shaken-up Shakespeares – othellomacbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith; Twelfth Night at the Young Vic; Much Ado About Nothing at the Watford Palace; and Measure for Measure at the Donmar

“Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?”

I’m the first to say that modern adaptations of Shakespeare need to do something different to justify their place in today’s theatre ecology. Lord knows there’s been enough traditional renditions of his work, and still they come, and even if there are always going to be people coming for the first time, there’s also a real need to make his plays speak to contemporary society in a way that is unafraid to challenge his reputation. It is perhaps no surprise that it is female directors and directors of colour who are at the forefront of doing just that and there have been four key examples in London most recently – Jude Christian’s othellomacbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub’s Twelfth Night at the Young Vic, Brigid Larmour’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Watford Palace and Josie Rourke’s Measure for Measure at the Donmar.

And of course, having demanded that this is what directors do, I found myself disappointed at the majority of these, for some of the same reasons and some different ones too. Perhaps the most formally daring is Christian’s othellomacbeth which smashes together the two tragedies to create something which ends up less than the sum of its constituent parts. Its intentions are certainly noble, seeking to highlight the female voices in these plays and give them prominence. But the reality is that in the two substantially reduced treatments here, everything becomes diminished, not least narrative clarity. There’s one cracking idea which connects the two, which you suspect might have inspired the whole production, but ultimately, it is not enough to hang the whole thing on.

A similar sense of over-riding concept dominates Josie Rourke’s take on Measure for Measure too. It’s another 2 for 1 deal but this time we get the same play twice and second time around, we’ve moved from a period setting to the modern-day and its leads have swapped gender. Again, the intent is a solid one, to explore the hypocrisies of a society that treats men and women differently for doing the same thing. And again, the form isn’t quite up to scratch as the cut-down versions of the play have their subtleties blunted and wider worlds shrunk down so that we’re once again struggling to make sense of it all. Ironically, the straight version speaks so loudly to today’s society with its belief of men’s voices over women that you could argue the switch is barely needed. 

I also found myself a tad disappointed by the Young Vic’s Twelfth Night, again because my expectations were perhaps a little too high for the beginning of Kwei-Armah’s reign as AD there. The concept here is somewhat less highbrow, a pointed move to the populist as much of the verse is junked in favour of Taub’s songs. An impressive amount of the plotting remains intact and the modern-day Notting Hill setting has its charms but the dominant note here is fun fun fun which means anything complex or melancholy is lost. Which is great in the name of accessibility but crucial questions of gender are ignored or indeed mocked and so this was always a production that I liked rather than loved.

So it fell to perhaps the least high-profile of these productions to really deliver the goods for me. And I wonder if the fact that Larmour’s all-female take on Much Ado About Nothing was set in the 1940s rather than the modern day has something to do with that (Antic Disposition managed a similar thing earlier this summer). A sense of playful fun permeates the production, conceived as a tribute to to the Osiris Players, Britain’s first all-female professional theatre company, and to the servicewoman of  WWII, and a keen sense of the comedic potential is observed throughout. But there’s also that crucial nugget of melancholy which serves to really deepen proceedings and make you care so much more.

Any conclusions? Maybe I should be less grumpy (I was ill for most of this week), maybe I should leave productions aimed at others alone, maybe I should see less Shakespeare…(as if that’s going to happen!) But I think there’s something too about directors (and theatres?) needing to be unafraid to end, or at least reduce, Shakespeare’s tyranny. At the same time, I don’t want anyone to get less experimental as traditional Shakespeare is more than well-serviced enough already. So no, no conclusions, just a hope that more of this work appeals to me.  

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